I was with a client’s executive team when the severity of the COVID-19 outbreak became clear. Like a lot of leadership teams, they were grappling with a lot of questions:

  • How serious is this pandemic, really? How do we sort facts from hype or complacency?
  • How should we respond to the circumstances in a balanced, thoughtful way?

This crisis presents a series of opportunities for leaders everywhere. Let’s start with the organizational ones because leadership teams must act in this crisis. In the early days of the coronavirus event, these decisions focused on questions like whether and how to work from home, how to ensure employees and customers are as safe and as comfortable as possible in the immediate uncertainty.

But the decisions didn’t and won’t stop there. Leaders have also been doing back of the napkin calculations about the costs of their decisions to the business. This doesn’t make them heartless people. It shows that they are sensible people looking to the long-term effects of near-term decisions. We want them to do that. Forethought increases the chances that these organizations will have a future, that they will be able to serve customers and provide good jobs to employees.

The client I was with when COVID-19 hit the fan runs a business with a large number of retail outlets as well as a head office in one of the hardest hit cities in our country. They serve customers who will be particularly affected financially by this crisis. And they provide a service that can help those same customers with near-term financial strain. 

So put yourself in their boardroom: What opportunity comes from this crisis? What decisions would you make? 

Crisis Choices Reveal Values

The decisions you make will show what matters most to you. That’s because decision time is always values time. You may have company values posted on your office walls. But don’t tell me what those posters say about your values. Show me the decisions you make, especially in a crisis when there are no free moves. Those decisions tell me everything about the real values you hold. Your crisis choices show what matters most. 

make decisions for what's importantHere’s what I noticed as I listened in on my client’s deliberations: The dilemmas they faced came from the fact that they hold more than one value at the same time. We know this is true every day, but on decision day, the tension between those values comes to the surface.

Take the decision of whether to encourage their head office workers to work from home. (At the time, governments had not yet mandated working from home.) On the one hand, these leaders wanted to show care for their people. On the other hand, they were worried about the productivity of their workforce in serving customers from home, especially during this crisis when doing so would allow personal concerns to be front and center. 

Putting myself in this leadership team’s shoes, I saw at least three potential values that were shaping their thinking:

  • Employee welfare: “We care about our employees and want them to be safe and cared for.”
  • Customer focus: “We want to provide our vital services to customers, especially in this crisis when they need us most.”
  • Personal responsibility: This value was more aspirational. “We want to believe that our workforce will handle a new working arrangement responsibly and deliver results even while working from home. As a team, we want to rise to this occasion and be our best selves.”

These values may appear to be in conflict. I believe they are simply in tension. They stretch each other and in combination, they could mark out the boundaries for the company’s principled action. They could lead these executives to say to their leaders, “Send your people to work from home. Focus them on the vital work we do for customers. Adjust your management approach to be sure that we have clear agreements on the daily outcomes we are achieving even while we work in a different mode.”

So here’s what any leadership team can do to crystallize and enshrine your real values:

  • Ask yourself what tangible decisions you are facing. Write them down.
  • Notice why you think certain courses of action make the most sense – and what values would underpin those decisions. “If we _______, it would show that we really value ________.”
  • Take the fast forward test. Ask yourself, “Will I be proud of those values when people tell stories about these decisions in the coming years?” Remember, these stories will have more weight than any speech or motivational poster ever will.
  • Make sure your decisions reflect a coherent, values-driven approach. You’ll know this when you can explain the rationale behind your decisions so that your average front-line leader gets it and can communicate it to their people – with conviction – in their own words.

We’re nowhere near the end of this crisis. Your actions over these next weeks and months will shape what your organization believes about your real values more than years of culture change initiatives or hundreds of motivational posters. 

Make choices thoughtfully – with your long-term values in mind – and you’ll have a powerful story that reinforces the best of your organization for years to come. Those values will be chiseled into people’s memories. That’s the kind of leader you are. That’s the kind of organization you’re building, even in a crisis.

Be Bright